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How to Gain Leadership Experience this Summer

As high school students head into winter break, summer vacation is probably the furthest thing from their minds. And that is just fine. Winter break is a good time for students to live in the moment a little, and relax and recharge.

But once they’ve had a chance to catch up on sleep, and recover from final exams and projects, students should consider setting some time aside during winter break to think about their plans for the coming summer. Parents and mentors can help them in this process by acting as sounding boards, and by helping them explore different ideas they’re excited about.

Summer is a great time for kids to pursue activities that demonstrate leadership. Below are a few different paths students can take this summer to show initiative and direction. These are all great opportunities for personal growth, and, as an added bonus, they’re great for helping students stand out when it comes time to apply for college.

What is leadership?

Students in high school hear a lot about leadership. It’s supposed to be important for getting into college, for example. But what exactly does leadership look like?

Leadership can take lots of different forms. Being president of your class, or captain of a sports team, are examples of leadership roles. But students can also demonstrate leadership outside of school through pursuits and projects that are intellectual, professional, athletic, artistic, and so on. In other words, as long as you are taking the reins and making an impact, chances are you are demonstrating leadership.


Community service is probably the first thing you think of when you think about extracurricular activities.

A few notes about community service. Everybody does it, and lots of students “do it wrong,” so to speak. Don’t use community service as an excuse to take a vacation to some exotic land—if you’re going to volunteer, do so in your community, rather than somewhere tropical.

Also, make sure your community service is in line with your authentic interests. If you’re super into a certain academic subject, consider looking for opportunities to tutor that subject. If you’re into politics, consider volunteering for a campaign. If you’re into environmentalism, join in an effort to clean up a local river—or, better yet, organize that effort.

In other words, don’t just volunteer because you think it will help you get into college. It won’t unless it’s authentic. And, most importantly, if you can find ways to help out that align with your own interests, you will bring more to those experiences, and they will be far more rewarding to you.

Ideally, you want to build on your community service experiences over time, and play more and more active roles within the organization(s) you participate in. At some point, once you’ve gained some experience, consider leading your own initiatives.


While everyone seems to do community service, not enough kids are getting regular old jobs. There seems to be a misconception out there that the only “professional” experiences that will impress college admissions officers are fancy internships.

Fancy internships can be great, particularly when they are competitive (rather than obtained through family connections). But students and their families should not underestimate how good it looks when students hold down a job, especially when the work represents a meaningful time commitment. Whether you’re flipping burgers, working retail, picking fruit, etc., having a part-time job during the school year, or a full-time job over the summer demonstrates serious maturity.

If you can get a job that aligns with your interests, even just slightly, that’s great. For example, let’s say you’re into computers, so you get a job at Best Buy. You’ll have a better chance of standing out and taking on more responsibility in a job like this. If you’re more of a literary type, see if you can get a job working at a bookstore, even if it’s just as a cashier at Barnes and Noble.


Summer can also be a great time to pursue academics. There are zillions of summer programs out there, and it’s fairly easy to find information about them, as they are well advertised.

Keep in mind that not all academic summer programs are created equal. Some are highly competitive, while others are not. Admissions folks know which are the selective ones, and which ones will take anyone whose family has several thousand dollars to spare. Do your research to see if a given program is worth your while, and remember that just because it takes place on an Ivy League campus doesn’t mean it’s a prestigious program.


Working with a professor can be a great experience for high school students, and summer is a good time to undertake such work.

These volunteerships can be hard to land. There is generally no formal application process: you’ll want to reach out to researchers in your field (and, most likely, in your geographic region), and try to start a dialogue. We’ve worked with kids who got an enthusiastic response to the first email they sent, and others who were ignored by dozens of professors before they found someone who was interested in working with a high schooler. Be persistent, and make sure you’re contacting professors you have some real intellectual commonality with.


Different activities suit different students, but this is probably our favorite avenue for summer activities. Summer is a great time to create your own independent extracurricular project. Put together your own chapbook and look for a publisher, or submit your poems to an online literary magazine; start your own business; build a robot. Do literally anything you want, as long as you see the potential to make an impact and gain experience in a pursuit that is meaningful to you.

This is our favorite approach to summer because it’s often the best way for students to blaze their own trail, and, ultimately, to stand out as leaders rather than followers.

Not sure how to get started? Our college admission consultants have got a program designed to help students develop impactful projects: check out our H&C Incubator.

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